The pope who squared off against Napoleon


Although the seventh pope to do so in history, Benedictine Cardinal Gregory Barnabas Chiaramonti is the first of what will be not a few popes in this series to choose the name Pius. Robin Anderson provides the context of his election in his (somewhat hagiographical) biography of the pope:  “The death of Pope Pius VI in France in August 1799, a prisoner of the French Revolutionaries, had left the Catholic Church in an apparently catastrophic, not to say hopeless plight. The pope was sneeringly called ‘Pius the Last.’ Many thought, not for the first time, that the papacy was finished” (xii).

However, Chiaramonti was elected in the Venetian conclave to help calm the European waters, turbulent in the wake of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror. One of his first acts as Pius VII was to name Ercole Consalvi Secretary of State.  Pius and Consalvi would play an important role in the history of both the papacy and the continent.

Most famously, Pius travelled to Paris amidst throngs of kneeling devotees and shouts of joy, for Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France. To Pius’ consternation, he watched the diminutive tyrant place the crown on his own head as a sign of disrespect and self-aggrandizement in the pope’s presence.

Eamon Duffy points out, “Even the jeweled tiara presented to the pope by Napoleon as a wedding-gift turned out to be a veiled insult, for it was decorated with stones looted from the Vatican in 1798.… Yet Napoleon’s bad grace and offensive behaviour only served to underline the fact that, however much he disliked it, he needed the pope to be there. The papacy’s authority and holiness were still hard currency in the world of power politics” (Saints and Sinners, 267).

As relations between the two leaders continued to deteriorate, Pius was eventually held prisoner in the Quirinal Palace, then shuffled off to Savona, where he was isolated from his advisors and influential cardinals, and eventually brought in 1812 to Napoleon’s compound at Fontainebleau. Napoleon was at the time off leading the Grande Armée on the ill-fated invasion of Russia, but Pius was harshly mistreated in Napoleon’s absence by his henchmen.  He remained captive in prayer and a worn cassock, increasingly cut off from news of world events. Upon the Emperor’s return, he threatened, flattered, pressured, and cajoled the pope into signing a provisional agreement revoking his temporal authority and ceding the Papal States to Napoleon, as well as the right to name bishops to regional (Francophile) metropolitans..

Immediately regretful, Pius remained unable to eat or sleep because of his grief at having capitulated to the dictator for fear of further harm against the church. His closest advisors, Cardinals Consalvi and Pacca, rushed to Fontainebleau upon their own release from prison and helped the pope prepare a letter annulling his provisional “concordant,” signed under such extreme duress.

Napoleon was unsurprisingly enraged.  However, the political sway of Europe had turned against him in the meantime. Pius regained the upper hand in their relationship, and waited for Napoleon’s eventual abdication, which came in April of 1814, and then again a year later after his failed Hundred Days experiment of reconquest.

Consalvi, the consummate diplomat (and interestingly a layman, before the mandate that cardinals be priests was established in the 1918 Code of Canon Law), worked out agreeable terms for the papacy at the Congress of Vienna, and Pius VII returned to Rome a spiritual and political hero. He went on to re-confirm the public and worldwide existence of the Jesuits, given refuge by Czarina Catherine in Russia during Pope Clement XIV’s suppression of the Order.

He also added to the beautification of Rome, overseeing the redesign of one of my favorite public areas of the city, the Piazza del Popolo, and renovating and buttressing the crumbling Colosseum.  Pius even graciously provided refuge for Napoleon’s mother in Rome and sent a priest to provide Catholic pastoral care to the exiled former Emperor on his deathbed.

Upon Pius’ own death in 1823, “a catafalque over 60 feet high, designed by the famous architect Valadier, was put up in the center of St. Peter’s, where it stood during the customary nine-day ceremonies and Masses – the novendiale – that follow the death of a pontiff. Bas-reliefs on the four sides at the base of the catafalque showed memorable moments of Pius VII’s reign: his return to Rome after long captivity; the restitution of the Papal States of the church; the restoration of the Society of Jesus; his protection and patronage of the arts” (Anderson, 198).

Pius VII undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the political reconfiguration of Europe after the Revolution and the Napoleonic era, as well as on the face of the Catholic Church’s temporal and spiritual patrimony.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham.